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With contract negotiations set to resume this week, there will also be a series of demonstrations for the Ottawa area on Tuesday to focus attention on the issue. (ROBERT PRATTA/REUTERS)
With contract negotiations set to resume this week, there will also be a series of demonstrations for the Ottawa area on Tuesday to focus attention on the issue. (ROBERT PRATTA/REUTERS)

Federal scientists push for protection from political interference Add to ...

Public-service unions are asking the federal government for the first time to enshrine scientific integrity language into their collective agreements.

The language is intended to ensure that researchers employed by the government can speak openly about their work, publish results without fear of censorship and collaborate with peers.

With contract negotiations set to resume this week, there will also be a series of demonstrations for the Ottawa area on Tuesday to focus attention on the issue.

If successful, the effort could mark a precedent-setting turn in what the government’s critics portray as a struggle between intellectual independence and political prerogative.

“Our science members said to us: What’s more important than anything else is our ability to do our jobs as professionals,” said Peter Bleyer, an adviser with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, whose membership includes some 15,000 scientists and engineers.

Government scientists have always been vulnerable to those who hold the reins of power, but tensions have grown under the Conservatives. After the Tories enacted a wave of research program and facility cancellations in 2012, stories began to emerge of researchers who were blocked from responding to media requests about their work.

Proposed sections for a new collective agreement put forward by the union include a provision that members have a right to express themselves on matters pertaining to science and their own research as long as they make it clear “that they are speaking in their personal capacity and not on behalf of the Government of Canada.”

Stephanie Rea, spokesperson for the Treasury Board, said the government could not comment on the substance of the proposals under negotiation.

In recent years, journalists have observed a marked change in their ability to access federal scientists in Canada. The restrictions upend the customary protocol for speaking to scientists about their published research.

Whenever a scientific study appears in a major peer-reviewed journal, it is common practice for the journal to identify a corresponding author who can speak to the media about the results of the study. But should a corresponding author happen to work for the Canadian government, the scientist is compelled to direct all inquires to media relations specialists in Ottawa who may or may not grant the scientist permission to speak.

The process complicates and delays interactions between journalists and federal researchers to a degree that is entirely unlike what happens with university researchers or, for the most part, with scientists who work for the U.S. government.

For example, last year the federal government declined to allow The Globe and Mail to speak to any Environment Canada researchers who were listed as authors on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report. In contrast, the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research sent out a general release with the names, phone numbers and e-mails of its scientist authors.

The onerous communications protocols apply even for stories about scientific advancements that are likely to reflect positively on the federal government. Last month, after it was announced that Canada would become a partner in the Thirty Meter Telescope, The Globe and Mail had to appeal to the Prime Minister’s Office to facilitate an interview with the National Research Council astronomer leading the development of the telescope’s sophisticated adaptive-optics system.

Last fall, the science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy released an assessment of science communication policies across the federal government and found that, overall, those policies do not support open communication between scientists and the public. Furthermore, those departments and agencies with somewhat better policies than others often failed to implement them.

The end result, said Katie Gibbs, the group’s executive director, is a culture of message control in which government scientists – including those involved in environmental monitoring or health and safety – are increasingly inclined to avoid contact with the public or the media out of fear of reprisals if they are quoted on their areas of expertise.

“It is now so ingrained that in addition to outright censorship, we’re also seeing self-censorship,” she said. She added that it would likely take a “bold step” for government scientists to feel they can speak freely again, regardless of which party holds power in Parliament. Explicit protections for scientists through their collective agreements could represent such a step.

In addition to language enabling open communication, proposals made by PIPSC during the current bargaining round include a request for provisions that would protect government researchers from coercion to alter their data or prohibit policy-makers from knowingly misinterpreting scientists’ findings. The unions are also seeking guarantees that researchers can attend scientific meetings to interact with peers outside of the federal government.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is currently conducting an investigation into complaints that scientists have been muzzled by the Conservative government.

Michael Halpern, a program manager with the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Washington D.C., said the efforts by Canadian public-service unions to embed scientific integrity into contract agreements represented a new approach to a persistent problem.

“When science comes into conflict with political goals, there’s a tendency to want to control the science or censor the scientists,” he said. “That’s not unique to any one government or any one administration.”

With a report from Erin Anderssen in Ottawa

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